'Sports Machine' Host George Michael Retires
NEAL CONAN, host:
Late night Sundays just won't be the same anymore. The host and creator of "The Sports Machine with George Michael" plans to sign off a the end of the month, opting to retire after changing the way we watch sports TV on TV. In 1984, Michael elaborated his highlight-drenched segment on local TV news into something entirely new.
"The Sports Machine" combined highlights and bloopers with fast-paced interviews and, of course, the scores. Along the way, he introduced football and baseball fans to bull riding and terrier races. And those of us here in Washington also got to watch him anchor the sports desk on NBC affiliate Channel 4. He signed off on that station last Thursday night.
If you have memories of "The Sports Machine" or questions for George Michael, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. With us is the man himself, George Michael, with us from his home near Frederick, Maryland. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. GEORGE MICHAEL (Host, "The George Michael Sports Machine"): Good afternoon, Neal, nice to be with you, sir.
CONAN: And you had the option to stay on. Why did you decide to leave now?
Mr. MICHAEL: Well Neal, it's very simple. I decided to leave because NBC and a project called 2.0 had told all their shareholders that they were going to reduce their overhead, and they decided that one of the things they wanted to do was to cut the sports immensely. I could have stayed, but I would have lost most of my staff, and I feel that these are the people that made us number one.
For 27 years, most of us have worked together - some of us for a little bit less - but by and large 27 years, and I just felt that if we were going to have cutbacks, I felt that I should be the first to go. I didn't think it would be right to stay there, you know, making a big paycheck while everybody else went to the unemployment line. And I said look, if we're going to cut the budget, then we'll start with me, and let's go from there. There was some argument about it, but I said it's not emotional. It's just business. If you guys want to cut, then I'm the first to go. And that's why I'm gone.
CONAN: It's interesting how the business can change so quickly. One minute you're talent, and the next minute you're overhead.
Mr. MICHAEL: Well, you know, Neal, I've known since the day we came here that we were overhead. It's amazing. When you go back - when I came here and agreed to in February of 1980, there was nothing like what we do. And NBC decided they wanted to build a very large and hopefully successful sports department. They wanted to do it outside of New York, and they elected Washington.
They met with me, we all liked each other, and the people that I worked for were very creative, very energetic, very enthusiastic. To tell you the truth, when I met the folks that I went to work for with NBC, I said I hope you guys aren't con artists, because this sounds like a terrific job. And it was. It was absolutely the best thing I ever did. I worked for a man named John Rohrbeck who went on to become president of NBC, and he was everything that he said he was. And it was their goal to be very good and successful through sports, but their goals have changed over the years, and so I accept that.
CONAN: Now tell us a little bit about the design of the program for those -it's hard to imagine people haven't seen it - but for those who haven't seen it, what is the intent and the nature of the program?
Mr. MICHAEL: Well what we did, Neal, is to try to bring, to try to make athletes a little more human, to spend more time with them, to get to know the people so that when we're showing a highlight, we can talk about someone as opposed to it just being a name or a number. And over the years, the key to success is to get to know the athlete, to get to know the coaches, to get them to trust you to tell you their story, and then hopefully you present it in a way where the public can enjoy it. And that's what we tried to do.
You know, I hate to say that we've got great writing, but the lady who was our writer for 27 years - you know, Pat Lackman. I mean, it's written by a woman. I said, I don't want just the scores. I don't want the stats. I want it to be a human story, and it's worked out very well.
CONAN: We're speaking with George Michael, for many years the host and creator of "The Sports Machine", which was syndicated. Of course, those of us here in Washington, D.C., also got to watch him locally on Channel 4. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get some callers on the line. And this is Skip, Skip with us from Phoenix, Arizona.
SKIP (Caller): Hey, how are you doing? Hey, George, I watched the show ever since I was a teen, and I really enjoyed the world famous batting-tee shot.
Mr. MICHAEL: The which?
SKIP: The world - yeah, the wiffle-ball bat. Do you remember the batting-tee shot?
Mr. MICHAEL: My God, I got more complaints on that. Neal, what it was was we got a video from a kid. This goes back to 1985.
Mr. MICHAEL: The kid's playing Wiffle ball, who accidentally hits his little sister, and he's laughing his butt off. The mom smacks him around a little bit, and we probably got as many complaints for showing that as anything, and we also got more people to die laughing.
SKIP: Hey, George, that's one of the only videotapes I have left. I videotaped it, and every now and again, I put it on, and it keeps me laughing.
Mr. MICHAEL: Skip, whenever you need a laugh, you can always put those on. It's sort of like the lady who's walking down the aisle, if you remember, with the horse, and the horse reached out of the stall and bit her on the butt.
SKIP: I remember that one, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SKIP: Hey, George, you have a happy retirement, man.
Mr. MICHAEL: Oh thank you very much, Skip. I appreciate it.
SKIP: All right, take care.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, and let's go to - this is - well, having a little trouble. And I actually wanted to go to a tape from your misspent youth, George Michael. This was going back even before the creation of "The Sports Machine". In fact, you weren't even in sports broadcasting, as yet.
(Soundbite of radio broadcast)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) (unintelligible), WABC.
Mr. MICHAEL: Well good evening, everybody, and welcome to September the 9th, 1974. It's 6:03, and I must tell you, I look around, everybody's looking, and what's the new guy going to sound like? What's the new guy going to sound like? He'd be nervous. You bet your bird I'm nervous. This is WABC, most music radio…
CONAN: And for many years, a disc jockey on what used to be the most-listened-to station in the nation, WABC, along with Cousin Brucie and all the rest.
Mr. MICHAEL: Well, you know, Neal, I had a very good run. I was in Philadelphia for almost 10 years, and they offered me the job in New York, and I said I really didn't want it because I didn't want to be the one to replace Cousin Brucie. So after they offered me the job, I said you hire someone else temporarily for six months, and then I'll go to New York and do it. And they did, and it worked out well.
I worked with guys that I grew up with. Dan Ingraham and Ron Lundy were friends of mine. We were all out of the St. Louis area. And they'd all gone there, and they said you've got to go with us, you've got to go with us. And it's hard to believe that - you realize that was 32 years ago?
CONAN: I'm appalled to recall that I was listening to that broadcast.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MICHAEL: But Neal, that was a great time. That was great rock-'n'-roll, and we had a lot of fun. It was really a fun station.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, though, that all wound up for you, I think, in 1979 when some changes were brought in. Again, it's all business. But you were on the air a year later in Washington doing TV sports. How did you make that transition?
Mr. MICHAEL: Well, I'd been doing sports while I was in New York. I was the Islanders' hockey play-by-play. I had been doing football, and I also was working for Channel 7 there, doing the sports on the weekend. So I've been doing sports, and I had planned, actually, to move to sports in '74 before I went to ABC because I'd been doing Orioles baseball. So I'd been doing a dual-life. One was sports, one was rock-'n'-roll. The only problem was that my hair was real long then, and everybody in TV's going, you can't go on the air looking like Prince Valiant. You've got to clean up your act.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MICHAEL: So I did have to get a haircut. I don't have that problem today because I've lost most of it.
CONAN: Well, we all move along. George, it was also a moment of technological advancement. It used to be - you know, in the first days of "Monday Night Football" - that to see the highlights of the Sunday games at halftime on Monday night was amazing. All that film had to be flown from around the country and reassembled, I guess, in New York for ABC.
By the time you came along, the technology made it possible for you to deliver that day's highlights that night.
Mr. MICHAEL: Well, Neal, unfortunately - you know, I worked for Howard Cosell for five years at ABC in New York doing a show called "Speaking of Sports". And whenever Howard wasn't there, I filled in. And ironically, the folks at ABC say that I caused the death of the their Monday night highlights because every Sunday night, by using satellite, I was able to feed in all the highlights of all the Sunday games. And starting in September of 1980, when we went on with "The Sports Machine" - which at that time was called "Sports Final" - we really hurt them.
And ABC went to the NFL and said what can you do to stop this guy? And they said well, he's paying us money, and I paid - people don't realize, I paid a lot of money to the NFL to even have the right to show their highlights. And because we showed them on Sunday to such an extent, why eventually, ABC stopped doing them at halftime. I think they should've stayed with them no matter what.
CONAN: And a lot of people credit you with the way that modern sports TV looks like, that ESPN owes a lot to George Michael.
Mr. MICHAEL: Well, the most flattering thing, Neal, is that each of the guys at ESPN have sent me notes or said something on their Web site that, you know, what an influence we had on what they do. That's a tremendous compliment, and one that I appreciate. We had a concept. I had an idea. I knew it would work, it was just getting the place to do it. And it turned out that doing it out of Washington for "The Sports Machine" and "Sports Final", it turned out to be a very good idea, and I feel very happy about that.
CONAN: Congratulations, and we appreciate your taking the time to come on with us today, and knock them dead for your last few shows.
Mr. MICHAEL: Thank you, Neal. I appreciate it. The last one is Sunday, March 25th.
CONAN: George Michael, the host and creator of "The Sports Machine", and, for many years, the sports desk anchor here on Channel 4 in Washington, D.C. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.
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